The widow of a British engineer found hanged in a Congo hotel room while on a dangerous mission for the United Nations has been awarded a £143,000 payout in a ruling that is highly critical of a department then run by Lord Malloch Brown, now a Foreign Office minister.
The body of Joe Comerford, 41, a Cambridge-educated engineer, showed signs of being strangled with a belt and a pathologist’s report suggested he had been murdered. However, his family was denied a proper payment by the UN’s insurers after the agency presented a biased report implying his death could have been suicide.
The UN’s administrative tribunal severely criticised the department last week responsible for its “callous” treatment of his wife and said that the case was “seriously mishandled”.
Mark Malloch Brown, who was the UN’s deputy secretary-general and head of UNDP until Gordon Brown invited him to join the government last year, said: “There was no way I felt I could personally resolve the matter and I decided it had to be referred to the UN justice system.”
Dutch-born Deborah Comerford-Verzuu launched the action after her husband died working for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August 2000. She has fought an eight-year legal battle with help from Andrew Granger of Taylor Wessing, a London-based law firm, who took her case pro bono.
Comerford had been sent to Congo ahead of 5,000 UN peacekeeping troops to assess structural damage caused by an occupying force of soldiers backed by neighbouring Rwanda. His report could have led to sanctions against Rwanda.
The troops, who controlled the Kisangani mining region, were robbing the country of diamonds, cobalt and ivory.
Comerford, from Bury in Lancashire, had left three children under the age of five with his wife at their home near the UN’s head office in Geneva, where she also worked for the UNDP. Over the previous 10 years he had been on similar UN missions, including supporting refugee camps for victims of genocide in Rwanda.
On August 16 he checked in to the Palm Beach hotel in Kisangani, which was also being used by the rebel troops for processing their illegal money and diamonds. Comerford had no protection even though the area was ranked a high security risk. Two days later his body was found in his hotel room, suspended from the window bars by a belt.
A Kenyan government pathologist concluded from severe bruises to the groin and broken bones in the neck that Comerford appeared to have been murdered. A report commissioned by the UNDP, quoting a pathologist from Guy’s hospital in London who saw pictures from the scene, said it could also have been suicide.
The tribunal awarded Comerford-Verzuu compensation “in light of the reckless and callous treatment” she received.
Comerford-Verzuu, who still works for the UN, said last week: “I never wanted a battle with the UN. All I ever wanted was to try and find out what really happened to Joe and to achieve a measure of justice.”
The UNDP said: “We regret the time it took to resolve these claims”, adding that it would pay the compensation “without delay”.